Christian Gibbons

Aid, Don’t Grade: New Apps That Focus on Improving Writing

Christian Gibbons

As writing is the trade with which I intend to make my (secondary) living, there’s a significant level of pressure on me to be the best writer I can be. This is also true of my being a student in college. Gone are the days of high school when building to a final essay assignment could take as long as a month. Now I, like others, need feedback for essays that are due on a weekly basis.

It’s okay that there aren’t always people who can help refine my writing in that tighter time frame, because nowadays there is technology that can do that, too. One such app is called Expresso, and it utilizes different linguistic metrics to help users examine how they write and learn how to make their writing better. Currently it’s only in beta and only for English, but the software is already rather extensive. Don’t know what modals, nominalizations or entity substitutions are? That’s okay—Expresso will point those out to you and, if you hover your cursor over one of the terms, it will also explain to you what those things are. (Spoiler: modals are verb modifiers demonstrating ability or necessity.)

But why are apps like Expresso becoming more popular? WriteLab, a software recently developed by a team of expert writers, professors and engineers at the University of California, Berkeley, is another example of an online tool created to assist people with their writing. However, the people behind WriteLab see it as doing something more ambitious than simply finding issues in people’s prose. “For decades,” Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, the executive director of the National Writing Project, explains, “we’ve had a range of digital tools for error detection and even auto-correction. . . . But WriteLab is unique in trying to use tools like natural language processing to provide detailed coaching feedback to the writer.”

Like Expresso, WriteLab works by analyzing the metrics of users’ writing and identifying stylistic problems. It also goes further by noting grammatical issues. But WriteLab is unique in that it works collaboratively with the user, and is intended to help cultivate an engaging authorial presence. The focus is on strengthening writing, not fixing it. In this way, the developers of WriteLab are hoping that their program will be used to complement more traditional curriculums—and it already has, both in higher education and in high schools.

It may be that apps like Expresso and WriteLab will pave the way toward more constructive review processes in the future. But, as the latter’s creators affirm, such software cannot replace teachers. If you’re looking for feedback for an essay, you still ought to speak to a real person!

Did You Know?

There are other types of writing apps that attempt to help users with their writing. However, they do so in more unorthodox ways. Apps like Write or Die, Flowstate and The Most Dangerous Writing App each work a little differently, but all aim to ramp up your productivity by forcing you to keep writing—because if you stop, everything you’ve written so far will disappear.

Photo Credit: Henry Medina

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